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BN Soccer's World Cup preview: The Contenders

With respect to Argentina and maybe France - two nations included in our World Cup pretenders list - three countries have separated themselves as favorites for the 2018 World Cup, which kicks off June 14 and runs through July 15.

This trio of contenders appeals for different reasons: one is the reigning world champion with a refined approach and frightening pool of talent, another boasts the most fun attack to watch and the last is a rebuilt - yet well-constructed - ex-superpower that might be crawling its way back to the top.

If you're looking for a World Cup bracket, here's a printable version.


Why they're legitimate: Jogi Low's national team keeps chugging along, winning the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, stumbling briefly against France in the Euro 2016 semifinals before laughing its way through the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Proponents of "Joga Bonito" might roll their eyes at Germany, where pretty football is often eschewed in favor of a physical, organized approach - with occasional flair from midfielders Mesut Ozil and Marco Reus.

The defensive unit boasts all four starters - plus goalkeeper Manuel Neuer - from Bundesliga giants Bayern Munich, which offsets one of the biggest obstacles facing international teams: chemistry.

The dynamism of Reus and Ozil is complemented by the distribution of Real's Toni Kroos, workmanlike efforts of Thomas Muller and target Mario Gomez, and stellar play of fullback Joshua Kimmich, one of the best players in the world under 25 and already an elite two-way outside back (with the ability to play several roles).

Just nine players from Germany's 2014 squad are included in Low's team for this World Cup, with the aging group of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Miroslav Klose, Philipp Lahm and Per Mertesacker replaced by several standouts from the Confederations Cup victory.

Given his supporting cast, striker Timo Werner - just 22 years old - has every opportunity to contend for the Golden Boot and further boost his club stock; RB Leipzig could be looking at a nice payday.



Why they're legitimate: We remain believers that Neymar will soon supplant Messi and Ronaldo as the game's biggest star. Although the Paris St. Germain forward is quickly earning the label of injury prone, Neymar boasts the confidence, pace and skill set to etch his name in Brazilian lore.

Tite's side is much more than their megastar, though, as clinical Gabriel Jesus, silky Roberto Firmino, midfield menaces Phillippe Coutinho and Willian, brilliant fullback Marcelo and Barcelona surprise Paulinho - a failure at Tottenham - form a deep, electrifying attack. It's probably rude that we left Juve's Douglas Costa out of the previous sentence, but such is life.

The defense is exploitable - Thiago Silva's best days are behind him, Danilo was rarely first choice at Manchester City, Marcelo sticks his nose up at marking and Filipe Luis is still loathed for nearly ending Lionel Messi's career - but how much defending will Brazil need to do with the abundance of attacking riches?

Don't forget about Casemiro and Fernandinho, two of the world's best at shielding a back four, and tidy, experienced midfielder Renato Augusto who, if fit, can keep the midfield from becoming disjointed.



Why they're legitimate: Tumult! Just two days before the start of the World Cup, Spain opted to switch managers, booting Julen Lopetegui for national team sporting director Fernando Hierro, a name familiar to longtime World Cup fans and one cherished in Spanish soccer lore.

Sports Illustrated's Planet Futbol tried to make sense of the move, which followed Lopetegui's hiring at Real Madrid to replace Zinedine Zidane, here.

For a squad considered to be returning to form, this news isn't ideal, but it's also not the end of the world. How important is a national team manager, other than shouldering the burden of results? With Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique in the fold, is leadership really an issue?

Player wise, this isn't your older brother's Spain, and the changing of the guard is ultimately a good thing, even though we'll miss watching Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and Xabi Alonso move the ball effortlessly in the midfield, as well as Fernando Torres' exceptional hair.

Despite the heaps of attention paid to Ronaldo, Real Madrid supporters know Isco's quality; the winger is special enough to keep Gareth Bale on the bench, after all. He's a relentless worker, gifted dribbler and intelligent passer; despite a small dip in his La Liga production this season, Isco was absolutely sensational for Spain in qualifying. There's a reason he was named among Sports Illustrated's top 23 players in the World Cup.

Hierro has the strongest midfield group in this year's tournament, as all nine have compelling arguments to start (but they won't, because no one starts nine midfielders). The attack - featuring Diego Costa, Iago Aspas and Rodrigo - is thin, but there are enough goalscorers in the midfield to alleviate much of the pressure on the forwards.

With all due respect to Gianluigi Buffon - and that's a lot of respect - Spain's David de Gea is the premier goalkeeper in the world right now. The Manchester United star rarely concedes soft goals and regularly makes astounding reaction stops. Jordi Alba, (now hated) Ramos, Pique and Cesar Azpilicueta are miles better than the replacement-level backs Jose Mourinho trots out for United, too.

A group stage clash with Portugal might be a blessing for Spain, serving as an important tune-up or even wake-up call before the elimination rounds. Hierro's inherited squad is built for a deep tournament run, but does it have the mettle to beat the likes of Argentina, Germany and Brazil - a possible route - in succession? We're not too confident.


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